Even after 20 years, the sense of accomplishment at summiting Africa’s highest peak Kilimanjaro still brings a warm glow
Article by Tom Conway-Gordon
As a hardy set of ‘celebrities’ have battled up Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in aid of Comic Relief, the publicity of their attempt has triggered a flood of old memories. Though 20 years may have passed since my own attempt up Kili, the experiences and lessons I learned on the mountain are as crisp today as the ice underfoot that now barely covers the highest points of the long dormant stratovolcano.
Fast Rewind 20 Years
I had been asked to Tanzania to work with a great friend of mine, Evan, at his father’s safari business in private reserves bordering the Serengeti National Park. As a young man in London with time on his hands, I had read enough Willard Price and Wilbur Smith to leap at the chance, and the adventure the Dark Continent promised. Summiting Kilimanjaro would be the icing on the cake.
I ran around London in the weeks before my flight getting jabbed, sourcing endless supplies of Paludrine and Alvoclor, borrowing oversized warm clothes, sourcing much khaki, buying and breaking in sturdy boots and procuring blister repair kits. I also acquired a grade 2 buzz cut. I didn’t need hair where I was going. But for some reason, I thought I definitely would need a white cotton suit, cobalt blue linen shirt and a Panama hat…why else would I have travelled to Africa so sartorially?
If Kilimanjaro International Airport is the arrival point for the Serengeti, Ngorongoro and Tanzania’s safari-seeking tourists, the town of Arusha is the gateway to the ‘Northern Circuit’. Back then all but the most central roads were rough, dusty tracks that put even the most ardent leaf-sprung suspension to the test. We spent a couple of days in VIP Safari Club’s HQ in the southern outskirts of the city while the administration for our climb was finalised. Last minute supplies were obtained, most notably boxes of glucose. A nervous sense of excitement rose within me.
After loading up the Land Cruiser and receiving well wishes as we reversed out on to the main road, the heavens opened. This doesn’t bode well, I thought to myself as we made the 30-minute to journey to the village of Moshi, the hillside ‘door’ to the mountain. The route we had chosen, Machame, required us to sign in and connect with our porters, cook and guide at the eponymous Machame Gate at 1,650m, where other climbers buzzed with energy. We were grouped with about ten others of various nationalities, the most charismatic of whom were a couple of older Brit blokes we instantly took a liking to. And then we were off on the first day’s trek, up to Machame Camp seven miles away at a height of 2,835m.
As with any climb, ‘slow and steady’ is usually the strategy to follow. Pah! Once we had a bead on, Evan and I began to overtake the other climbers. We were not racing them, but our youthful exuberance left them in our wake. We hiked through low hanging trees, with mossy creepers dangling down onto the path. Glacial rivers roared in the distance, while Colobus monkeys cackled at us as we marched below them. It came as no surprise that we were the first ‘clients’ to arrive at Machame Camp, and as we lay around relaxing, the very first signs of dreaded altitude sickness, headaches, hit me. A couple of Advil promptly sorted that out. No big deal. Over to the west, we looked towards Shira Plateau, much of it masked by cloud, while the mountain itself shone like gold in the evening light. As we lay down to sleep, we suddenly heard a roar from another tent, immediately identifying one of our older English pals. “Uhuru!! We are coming!!” We certainly were.
The morning of Day 2 began with bright sunshine, which had burnt away the clouds and we could see far inland across ravines lined with jagged peaks falling away towards the flatland. Shira Plateau was vast. It felt like we were on Dartmoor. No more trees, but plenty of heather and flowering white thistles. We filled our water bottles with meltwater as fog enveloped us for most of the four hours it took to climb from 2,835m to 3,850m to Shira Camp 2. My headache was worsening ever so, but otherwise I felt fine. Heaped teaspoons of glucose powder in our tea saw to that.
Day 3 took us across and round Kilimanjaro, passing the Lava Tower known as the ‘Shark’s Tooth’ at 4,560m to the east where the route eventually led up towards the snowline and the summit. We traversed sharp ridges, confronting icy blasts. Various blisters formed and burst on each foot and some ‘emergency surgery’ was required. My blister kit came into its own, providing a generous layer of protective silicone over my raw feet bound fast with adhesive bandage. Camp that night was at Barranco Camp, named due to the intimidating wall to the East that towered over us. As the angle of the sun gradually lifted its glare away, the temperature plunged sending us scrambling for layers, hats and scarves.
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Day 4 began in beaming sunlight. We wolfed down breakfast before heading up the wall. Slow and steady definitely came into effect here, as the thinness of the air made its presence firmly felt. The path was single file switch-backs, winding their way up the jagged haematite face. Upon reaching the top, we were met with incredible views East of what I can only describe as other planet-scape. Terracotta sand strewn with countless boulders, once red-hot magma that had exploded out of Kilimanjaro and lay motionless for millions of years. Far below us was fluffy blanket of cloud, with Mount Mawenzi piercing through in the distance. My head felt like it was in a vice. Advil no longer had any effect. The mental battle had begun in earnest.
We arrived at Barafu Camp, perched high on a precipice. Black crows hovered above us as the chef threw whatever food was left into the pot. I forced down what I could before projectile vomiting it all over a rock about a foot away, narrowly missing a startled Evan. Biscuits and water would be my sustenance, then. We retired to our tents at dusk to try and steal a few hours of kip ahead of the twilight assault on Uhuru.
We were woken at 11.45pm and sucked down some energy tea before emerging into bright moonlight. There was barely a cloud in the sky and the stars shone down upon us, highlighting the path upwards. This was when the going got tough. ‘One foot in front of the other’ I repeated in my mind for hours, stopping occasionally to look back down the mountain and the torchlight procession following me.
Eventually, we reached Stella Point at 5,739m, the final milestone on the way to Uhuru Peak. The last part of the climb would see us walk around the volcanic crater, up to the summit. Five minutes or so after leaving Stella, I ground to a halt. Perched on a glacier in howling wind, 30 minutes and 150m from the roof of Africa, we grabbed 40 winks. We were probably only asleep for about 10 minutes when our guide woke us. “Twende! Let’s go!” Boosted by the powernap, we trudged upward to the summit in a race with the sunrise.
At long last, we came across a rather battered old wooden board lying down in the snow. ‘You are now at the Uhuru Peak, The Highest Point in Africa at 5,895m A.S.L.’ (above sea level) it read. The sense of accomplishment flooded through me, and all tiredness dissipated amidst the excitement and celebratory hugs and photos. We then stood in silence to take in the sunrise in all its golden glory as it lit up the whole of Africa.
As we headed down in jubilant mood, Evan suddenly stopped. ‘Shit!!’ he exclaimed. Apparently, his camera had failed. Back to Uhuru we went, summiting Kilimanjaro twice in one morning. Assured that we had photographic evidence of our achievement, we chuckled as we headed past Stella to Gillman’s Point, part of the Marangu Route. We stopped here for dark mint chocolate and water. My head was absolutely pounding at this stage, unaware things were about to get a lot more uncomfortable.
Below Gillman’s Point is a giant scree slope. Zigzagging from left to right was a path that fell all the way down to Kibo Huts, Marangu’s final camp. Using gravity to our advantage we would bolt down several steps then jump, the scree cushioning us and sliding us down further. Every time I landed though my brain burst out of my head. Soon enough, my chocolate breakfast burst out of my mouth. We blundered on.
We fell into the huts, large metal dormitories with endless bunk beds. We sat at some picnic tables and promptly fell asleep. A couple of hours later, we continued down, skipping in our summit gear past climbers in shorts and t-shirts, the heavier oxygen rich air fuelling our ‘power march’. Horombo huts soon arrived and we toasted our success with Kilimanjaro’s ‘own-brand’ lager before collapsing into bed for the first decent kip in days. The final day on the mountain was a gentle jaunt through a belt of rainforest, Colobus again overhead cheering our success. Collecting our official summit certificates, we posed for further photographs before returning to Arusha victorious. Uhuru, we came, we saw, we conquered
Life lessons from Kilimanjaro:
- Preparation is key. Having all the right gear was vital to my enjoyment of the climb.
- Listen to your body: Headaches started for me on day one after a fast, early climb. Slowing down to acclimatise gradually eased them. Until Gillman’s anyway.
- Believe you’ll succeed from the very outset: There was never any doubt in my mind. I visualised myself at the top, even in London.
- One step at a time: any achievement in life, no matter how big or small comes one step at a time.
- Achievements are forever: Remembering how I felt at Uhuru, and the hard work it took to get there, always provides me with mental strength in adversity.